On May 4 Boeing flew for the first time an F-16 that the company has converted for pilotless flight under the U.S. Air Force’s Full-Scale Aerial Target (FSAT) program. The flight took place at Cecil Field, near Jacksonville, Florida. A Boeing test pilot took the aircraft up to 41,000 feet during the 66-minute sortie.
In March 2010 Boeing was awarded a multi-year contract to convert surplus F-16s to QF-16 standard for the FSAT mission. The Air Force’s stocks of QF-4 Phantom targets are running low, and the 1970s-vintage F-4 has become increasingly less representative of modern fighter threats. The availability of large numbers of early-variant F-16s made it a natural choice for a fourth-generation FSAT.
FSATs retain full manned controls, and are often flown manned for trials and exercises in which no weapons are employed. Under the QF-16 conversion, however, they are equipped with systems that allow remotely piloted control at the U.S. Air Force’s two missile test ranges at Tyndall AFB, Fla. (Gulf Range Drone Control System) and Holloman AFB, N.M. (Drone Formation Control System, White Sands Missile Range). Boeing holds options to produce up to 126 QF-16s. The first six are scheduled to go to Tyndall AFB for evaluation in October before operations begin at Holloman AFB.